Juice Wrld’s legacy has continued to thrive since his passing thanks to an extensive catalog of music and a foundation created in his honor by his mother, Carmela Wallace. In helping others with their own mental health, Ms. Wallace is keeping her son’s spirit alive.
Words: Georgette Cline
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands in January 2022.
Mother knows best, it’s an old adage that Juice Wrld recognized both in and out of his music. On the revered Chicago rapper’s platinum track “Fast,” he rhymed, “I don’t try to be
mean on purpose, I promise/My mama taught me better than that, I’ll be honest.” His mother, Carmela Wallace, who refers to her son as the name she gave him, Jarad, smiles during a Zoom call this past November when hearing the endearing lyrics. It’s a testament that her son was paying attention to her parenting skills as a kid the whole time.
Since Juice’s childhood, Ms. Wallace, 56, recognized his gift for music. He excelled in piano lessons at age 5. Playing handbells, guitar, bass drum and marching band in high school followed. While Ms. Wallace encouraged Juice to attend college after high school graduation in 2017, she soon realized his heart was set on rapping. Seeing the passion and energy her child had while performing at a friend’s birthday party was all she needed to support him taking a gap year to try to make his dreams come true as a hip-hop artist. And by 2017, Juice was regularly hitting the studio and had signed a deal with indie label Grade A Productions, cofounded by Lil Bibby and brother, George “G-Money” Dickinson. The following year, Juice inked a deal with Interscope Records worth a reported $3 million.
Juice Wrld’s music sounded like diary entries, filled with his thoughts and feelings on love,
mental health and his troubling drug use. Ms. Wallace became cognizant of her son’s struggles after listening to the multiplatinum-selling wunderkind’s lyrics. She prides herself on their close relationship, but Juice wasn’t always forthcoming with her about his pain. As a result, she was adamant in fostering communication that was respectful and non-judgmental in dealing with his addiction. After the lauded rhymer’s death due to an accidental drug overdose on Dec. 8, 2019, at the age of 21, Ms. Wallace launched the Live Free 999 foundation to support programs that help people find positive avenues to address their anxiety, depression and substance dependency.
Here, Carmela Wallace, whose path to healing includes the comfort of playing pinball—a game Juice was “freakishly good” at—discusses her son’s legacy, the mission of Live Free 999, the importance of transparency with his battles and what she really thinks about those pesky song leaks.
XXL: Thank you for taking the time to speak with XXL today. How are you?
Carmela Wallace: I’m good. Thank you for having me.
You’re welcome. Live Free 999 is a foundation you launched to help normalize the conversation about mental health in honor of Juice Wrld, also known as your son, Jarad Higgins. What is the mission?
The mission of Live Free 999 is really to just normalize the conversation around mental health, you know, and just take the stigma away from it and just to contribute to organizations that support that cause, you know, as well as substance dependency. Then we have another part of us that provides opportunities. Like, for example, when we first launched, we had a couple of shirts that came out. We had the Live Free logo shirt and we also have a shirt we released called “Exhale Depression.” Those were college students who did that design and they were able to get recognition for doing the work. We just wanted to provide opportunities that people may not normally have gotten to showcase their talent.
Why was it important for you to even start the foundation?
Well, I was hurting, painful. And then I started receiving messages from people, how [Jarad’s] music helped them with depression and anxiety. And I felt like it was a void. I felt like it was my obligation to continue that message—Jarad’s message of healing—’cause he really touched on mental health in his music. He talked about mental health. So, I felt like as his mom, I needed to carry that forward.
You’ve done some special things so far. What are the ways Live Free 999 has helped others since you’ve launched?
We have a crisis text line, which is really big. That line is free and confidential. It’s 24/7, where if they need help, they have someone to talk to, where they are not being judged. I think people just need to feel comfortable about talking about themselves not being OK and that’s a good avenue. We have seen such great numbers in the African-American male community responding to that text crisis line and so, it’s a big deal.
Other things we have done, we supported programs for substance dependency. We supported programs who deal with mental health. And some of them, I think it’s called A Place Called Home out in L.A., where they actually have a music program and they put together an album or something at the end. So, things that kind of relate to things that Jarad did or path that he’s walked before, but, also, just to open doors for other people to get help.
And we are still growing. We still would like to touch more. We would like to be more hands-on. So, in the future, I hope to see us sponsoring events and just getting more into the legwork, you know, not just making donations, but actually contributing in other ways we find best.
What’s respected on your path as a mother is that you haven’t turned inward to hide the experiences that your son had with mental health and drugs and you channel that into your foundation to help others. Why is that significant for you to be open and share from a mother’s perspective?
Transparency I think is important. And I think it’s important for other people to heal. And I know the world sees him as Juice Wrld, I see him as Jarad, and just normalize our conversation around him and his experience. So, I just think that it’s important to be honest. And I was honest with him. The same way I am is the same way I was with him. I was transparent. We talked about drugs and his use. We talked about him getting help. He knows I would do something like this. He knew that I would be the one with a mission of helping others. It’s not necessarily to, you know, glorify his drug use, for a lack of a better word. It’s for a fact that, hey, this is real. I don’t want to glorify drugs. I just want you to see the outcome of it. The outcome of what can happen if you allow yourself to stay in that state.
So, it was important to me to be honest and say, “Hey, people are hurting,” and how can I help people if I conceal it? It has to come out to give that message that you are not alone because people just suffer alone.
These days, why do you think it’s even more important for artists to do a self-check when it comes to their mental health and making that a priority?
I think it’s not just artists. I think really it applies to all of us. I think with them, they just have a lot on their plate. Their schedule is really busy, and there’s a lot coming at them. Especially like Jarad, because he went from high school to out of the house. So, we didn’t have that separation. That time to adjust. He just had to go. So, he had to adapt to basically a whole other lifestyle. And I would try to encourage him because he did counseling when he was in high school just for impulsiveness, ’cause he would be a bit impulsive. And I recommended that he do that, but he didn’t. I couldn’t make him do it.
But I think it’s just important to take care of your mental health. I think it’s important to just do those checks and say, you know, “Am I OK?” and just really pay attention to things that are bothering you. Pay attention to the anxiety and just try to do something about it and not think that this is normal. It’s not normal to have to live like that even though they have such a busy schedule and so many demands on them in that industry. That they definitely need to just take time out and see if they are OK and just have people around them that support that.
When it comes to that counseling, why was that the way to go to help your son just kind of figure out what was going on with himself?
So, he had a choice. So, first of all, he was diagnosed with ADD. He didn’t like taking the medicine and I understand. He didn’t like the medicine and I couldn’t make him take it ’cause he was at that point, now he’s in high school, he would pitch that pill somewhere and be about his way. We finally found something that was a little better, a little more natural, but he wasn’t a fan. So, I gave him two choices. I said, “You could either do karate or you could do counseling.” And so we went to this place where we live in Homewood [in Illinois] for a free trial and when we pulled up to the building, they said Karate for Kids and that was done. He wasn’t going in there and I wasn’t making him.
And so, I found someone that he could relate to, to speak with that he felt comfortable with. He was an African-American male who worked with a lot of people in sports and he could relate to Jarad. So, Jarad felt comfortable and I was comfortable with him talking with him. So, we did it for at least three years and a little after high school, too, until he left to do Juice Wrld stuff, but he was definitely going to counseling regularly.
That was a significant amount of time. Do you think that also just helped him on a personal level to express himself with his feelings, but also within his own music?
I think so. I think that was a big contributor to that. Jarad was always a talker. He never had a problem with his words, but I think it helped him get more in touch with his feelings. And I think it definitely did help him express himself through his music.
Aside from the foundation, what are some other ways that you are involved in keeping Juice Wrld’s legacy going strong?
I think the foundation is the biggest thing. And then I’m building a brewery [Homewood Brewing Company] in our old neighborhood in his honor. So, that as well because Homewood was special to us. I moved there because he wanted to go to the high school, so I bought a house there. It was coming off a hard time financially that I just kept working and working hard where I could provide for him. A home and a nice community with a nice high school that he loved. So, it was special. Our time there was special. He loved it. And so, I just felt I wanted to just give back to the community and serve and honor him because he loved it so much. So, those things really just keep me really busy.
That’s great. Juice’s fans know him as an artist who had an exceptional talent, but first and foremost, he’s your son, Jarad Higgins. As a child, when did you realize he had a gift with music?
I would say when he was taking piano lessons because he would just memorize the songs. He started at about 5 or 6. He could read music, but he wouldn’t. I mean, he would read it once and then he would just start playing the songs. And then as he grew, you just see him start picking up songs. He picked up the guitar and he was teaching himself actually. And then I’m like, “Well, maybe you should get lessons for that, too.” But when he got to the class, he was so advanced they had to give another class and this was him teaching himself. So, he just naturally just connected to instruments and music.
His music seems to be the place that he let everything out. On Juice’s song “Fast,” his lyrics are, “I don’t try to be mean on purpose, I promise/My mama taught me better than that, I’ll be honest/I blame it on the drugs and this life that I’m involved in.”
So, the first part of those lyrics, “My mama taught me better than that,” which is great because it shows your parenting style and skills were respected by him. When you hear lyrics like that, how does it make you feel as a mom?
It’s like, OK, he was listening. Honestly, yeah, because I tried, you know? As parents, we do our best and we make mistakes sometimes. I always own my mistakes. And yeah, he gets it. He was respectful and kind by nature. So, that means he listened.
That is one of his most popular songs, so there are a lot of people singing those exact lines to the world. The latter part of those lyrics, “I blame it on the drugs and this life I’m involved in.” When was the time or moment when you realized he was having issues with drugs in his life and he started to self-medicate?
Through his music. Through what he was putting out and then I just started to talk to him about it. It was a challenge to talk to him because A, he was not living at home anymore. He is an adult, so he was responsible for his decisions. I came at him in a way that was more compassionate ’cause we always talked. And I’m not naive to think that he told me everything. I know he didn’t tell me everything. They are not supposed to. But some things he told me, I didn’t really want to hear. But he would share with me and I would listen.
I think that was his reality. It was the drugs. Just the conversation about the drugs and that was a hard one. And I told him my biggest fear was him dying from this stuff. He knew how I felt about it. He promised me he was going to get help and I think he was going to do it. I think he had a date set to go in [rehab]. Just ran out of time, really. I think that’s what it really was.
It’s painful to hear as a mother especially when there’s nothing you could do. There was nothing I could do about that but talk to him in a respectful way, not in a judgy way, but com- passionately, to let him know, “Hey, it can get better. You need to do something about this.” So, we talked about it a lot. But not to a point where it’s like, “Oh god, here she comes again.” I didn’t want that. So, I had to have a balance with it and not just hammer him every time I saw him about, “When are you going to get clean?” But just talking to him about my fears like a mother to a son and not as one who’s passing judgment on him.
Fans have received posthumous albums from Juice Wrld over the years. What is your actual involvement in his music being released?
My involvement is to let the experts do what the experts do. Bibby really produces and puts all the stuff together like he did when Jarad was here. I think he does an awesome job, so I would never mess with that. My involvement is they might play the songs for me before the music is released like the last album. I remember just sitting on my deck just listening to every song…
Yes. So, I let them do it. My involvement is I give the thumbs up, but Bibby does what Bibby does. He picks the songs and puts everything together. He does such an awesome job, so I would never want to change that dynamic and he loved him. He would put stuff out that really represents him [Jarad] well. And he puts the love and labor into producing something really good, so I would never take that away.
Much of Juice’s music gets leaked unfortunately. What are your thoughts on the people releasing his songs?
I understand they loved him. They loved his music, but there’s a proper way to do it. Let us give you our best. Leaked music is not necessarily cleaned up music, it’s just leaked, it’s not finished. So, it’s just a lot of work just going into it. It’s a bit disrespectful to him, honestly, to leak his music like that. But I know that monster is there, been there and it’s not going anywhere. We can just do our part and put out good music. He made a lot of music.
What is your favorite Juice Wrld song?
I have a bunch. Just off that last album, [Death Race for Love], I like “Flaws and Sins.” I like “Fast.” I like “Hear Me Calling.” I think I like that whole album. And, of course, his first one, [Goodbye & Good Riddance]. I love “Lucid Dreams” ’cause I’m a huge Sting fan. So, I re- member when he brought that sample home and he was playing it. And I’m like, “Hey, that’s Sting. Make sure you get permission.” That’s the first thing I said. I’m always a fan of “Lucid Dreams” because it’s special to me ’cause that’s when I realized, Wow, this kid is really talented. It really made me see him as the artist, not just as my son. I think “Flaws and Sins” might be my favorite one.
There was a video going around on social media last year from a fan who filmed the outside of Juice’s mausoleum, which includes photos of him as a child as well as him as an artist. Why did you want to also showcase Juice’s XXL cover there?
I wanted to do something for the fans and then something for the family. We always treated him like Jarad. I like to show the reality of it. Juice Wrld is an icon, but Jarad was a son, a brother, an uncle and all of that. So, I like to make stuff more realistic. He wasn’t just Juice Wrld. He was my son that died from an overdose, so I like to keep it like that. That’s the way I only know how to do stuff. I don’t like to do fluff. I deal in reality. I try to respect stuff that he would love and I know that he loved his fans.
Visit LiveFree999.org for more info on mental health or text their crisis line: LF999 to 741741.